Rule-breaking analogies

The defining feature of an analogy is that it compares two different things.

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Those two different things are often relatively different from each other. Differences between the two topics being compared are likely why analogies are illustrative — they help us understand new or complex topics by pointing out ways they’re similar to more familiar or simpler ones. The new or complex topic being explained is often abstract — something we can’t see or touch, while the more familiar or simpler one tends to be concrete.

For example, the “structure of an atom is like a solar system. Nucleus is the sun and electrons are the planets revolving around their sun.”

I’ve recently come across a few exceptions to these definitional rules of analogies. Although the exceptions still make comparisons in order to explain or illustrate something, they compare different features of one single thing — they both use time to explain time.

This might seem like a lazy or misguided way to communicate, but I think it works. Here are two examples.

The next one jumped off the page at me when I was reading The Remains of the Day:

All right, so neither of us are exactly in our first flush of youth, but you’ve got to keep looking forward… You’ve got to enjoy yourself. The evening’s the best part of the day. You’ve done your day’s work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it.
-Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

My final example of a rule-breaking time analogy also jumped out at me, this time for its terrifying nature:

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Screenshot from New York Times, January 25, 2018

I wasn’t aware of this metaphorical clock that has existed for decades. Apparently, the Doomsday Clock is “a potent symbol of scientific concerns about humanity’s possible annihilation.” And, as the headline expresses, it’s now closer to midnight than it has been since the Cold War.

Why are these successful analogies? In each case, they help us to understand more complex, less graspable time concepts by comparing them to more graspable ones. Both cases draw attention to ways that longer time spans (evolutionary history or an individual’s life span or humanity’s existence) are analogous to shorter time spans (one year or one day — in both of the latter examples). For me, the first analogy was definitely informative — it improved my sense of the amount of time between the emergence of different life form. The second analogy I found intellectually satisfying (I actually put the book down and started reflecting on the fact that I don’t love evenings; I love mornings. And then realized that I’m 26 years old and maybe it’s not such a bad thing that I’m not on Team Evening yet). And the final one definitely conveyed a sense of urgency — there are a lot of scientific and political risks that we really need to get under control.

I like these analogies. I like that they helped me learn and to reflect, and that they were rebellious rule-breakers in the process.


Cover photo by Curtis MacNewton on Unsplash

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